What if you don’t know your own mind as well as you think you do?
In their 2013 book Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin Binaji and Anthony Greenwald reveal some surprising statistics about how many of us have biases toward African Americans, women, the elderly, and many other classifications of people. We’re often unaware of these biases, and in fact, our conscious or stated attitudes may conflict with them.1
(You can test for your own hidden biases by trying out the Implicit Association Test but be warned, you may be unpleasantly surprised.)
Where do these biases come from? From your brain’s attempt to cope with the overwhelming amount of information it has to process every day. It simply can’t handle the data points rushing at it from every direction, and so your brain simplifies the world by categorizing just about everything, and that includes people. Essentially, it automatically engages in stereotyping.
I suspect most of us would prefer not to operate under the influence of unconscious biases and we’d likewise prefer that others don’t. When I’m speaking with a group of leaders I’d prefer that their brains aren’t homing in on the fact that I’m a woman, or that I have a slight Midwestern accent, or that I have blond hair–these characteristics should be irrelevant in that situation. But the research suggests that their brains likely ARE focused on these things and further, that they’re forming an impression of me based on the associations they have with those categories. Without knowing it, my audience members are likely deciding that I’m emotional (a common association with women), that I’m “Minnesota-nice,” and if they’ve heard too many blond jokes, well… it’s not good.